|Visitor inspects a lunar rover at the 11th China Chongqing High-tech Fair on Thursday. The rover is expected to serve the nation's first astronauts who will set foot on the moon. [Photo/China Daily]|
China's space exploration agency unveiled a four-wheeled lunar rover on Thursday, sparking speculation about sending Chinese astronauts to the moon.
The vehicle was displayed at the 11th China Chongqing High-tech Fair that opened in the southwestern metropolis, and instantly attracted a frenzy of attention.
Being developed by the Ministry of Education's Center of Space Exploration, the vehicle can carry two people and a heavy payload. It will serve the nation's first astronauts who will set foot on the moon, according to Zhan Hanjing, deputy chief designer at the center.
Research and development for the rover was commissioned jointly by several central departments that oversee China's space program, including the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense and the Ministry of Education, he said, adding that the conceptual design began at the end of 2013.
"I don't know whether the task signifies that the government has decided to pursue missions to the moon," Zhan said. "But I can tell you that the task was given to us by the government, and all of its costs are covered by State funds."
He declined to disclose the project's budget or the amount of money that has been spent so far.
China has not yet created a manned lunar exploration project, Wu Weiren, chief designer for the nation's lunar probe program, said in earlier reports.
The new moon vehicle, though appearing rough and unsophisticated, boasts an outstanding ability to roam over bumpy terrain with its lightweight frame and supreme strength, Zhan said.
He said the center is also working on two other rovers, but didn't elaborate.
The first manned rover was used in the US Apollo 15 mission in 1971. Altogether, there have been three lunar vehicles driven by astronauts on the moon. All were from the United States.
"We studied the US manned rovers used in Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions and adopted their experience in our design," Zhan said.
China's first rover to touch the moon's surface is the 140-kilogram, six-wheeled Yutu, which was part of the Chang'e-3 mission last year. It began operating on Dec 15.
The Chinese buggy has outlived its design life of three months and is in its fourth period of dormancy.
"The scientists and designers will overcome a host of technological difficulties before they produce a usable manned rover," an insider with China's lunar exploration project said, who wished to remain anonymous.
"For instance, they must design a reliable wheel. A new navigation system is also needed."